Softening & Brightening a Portrait in Photoshop


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Have you ever wondered how magazines and professional image editors work their portrait photos so they look as good as they do? I've wondered this for a long time and I think I'm making some progress in figuring out how they get things done. It's the secret sauce that I'm interested in and I've recently discovered that much of what they do pertains to filters and blend modes in Adobe Photoshop. Down below, I'll work through a process that might just help you out if you're interested in the same thing as I am.

To start off with, I'll take a regular portrait shot of someone and open it up in Photoshop.


Next, I'll duplicate the photo layer in the Layers panel by using the keyboard shortcut of Ctrl (Command)+J and then I'll rename the layer to Blended or something similar to indicate that this is the layer I'll be working on. This naming isn't critical, but it's good to get in the habit of keeping things organized as you work in Photoshop.

After that, I'll right-click in the gray area of the named layer somewhere and I'll select the Convert to Smart Object option that appears in the menu that pops up. So basically, I've now got two layers, while one of them is a named Smart Object.

At this point, I can begin adding some filters to the Smart Object layer. I'll go to the Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur menu item and click. When the Gaussian Blur dialog box appears, I'll set the Radius value to 25. The effect of this value will differ among photos. It depends on the size of the photo (pixel dimensions). For me, a value of 25 was good. You basically want to blur the contents of the image, without making it unidentifiable. Take a look at the image I'm working on.


When that's done, I'll click the OK button to close the dialog box and to accept the changes.

The next thing I'm going to do is brighten and soften the image. The way I'll do this is to change the blending mode of the filter I just applied. So, in the Layers panel, I'll double-click the blending mode icon that's to the right of the filter name and I'll choose the Screen blending mode option from the Mode drop-down.


Do you see how some of the blur disappeared and was replaced by a nice bright softness? This is exactly what the pros do to make their photos look magical.

Okay, at this point, I'd like to add another blur filter to this image. I can do this because of the fact that I'm working with a Smart Object. I can add many filters and they'll be stacked right on top of one another in the Layers panel. Since I've already got the filter I want, all I'll need to do is duplicate it. If you aren't aware, it's easy to duplicate, or copy, a filter in Photoshop. All you need to do is hold down the Alt key on your keyboard and click and drag the filter you'd like to copy, upward. I'll do that now and I'll end up with two identical filters.


For this second filter though (the one on top), I'll change the blend mode to Soft Light. This will take away some of the fairy tale softness and replace it with contrast.


As you can see, the photo still looks far too soft. My initial goal was to soften it, but to keep it sharp. I wanted to accentuate the dreaminess of it. To accomplish that, I'll change the blend mode of the entire layer, not just the filter. So, I'll click on the blend mode drop-down in the Layers panel while the top Smart Object layer is selected and I'll change the blend mode of everything to Soft Light. Let's see how that looks.


Pretty good, right? I like that a lot. It's got more punch to it than the original image did. It's almost as if I added one of those Instagram filters to it.

As I mentioned, I can add eve more filters to this image. To experiment, I'll add the Noise filter with a value of 25 and then I'll add a Lens Flare. Let's see the result of those two additional filters. I'll keep them both without any additional blend modes applied to them, since the Soft Light one is already affecting them.


Well? What do you think? Now imagine the effects I just applied to this photo being applied to one of yours. All you need to do is open your up in Photoshop and copy the instructions I just gave in this tutorial. It's that easy. Of course, you can experiment with the levels of each filter and blend mode to match your tastes, but I think this is a simple way to make photographs and portraits pop out with some additional flavor.

If you have any questions about how I did anything in this post, please let me know down below. I love to answer questions. Thanks!